Grenfell one year on: a litany of failures

One year on from Grenfell, community groups are still organising and continuing the demand for justice
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‘We are having an inquiry to find out what most of us already know. We are here because nobody listened and those in authority were convinced they knew better. You can’t sweep this under the carpet…Materials that are clearly dangerous are still there on buildings up and down the country… Not good enough is not the word. This is how our families are being remembered. They are being remembered by a culture of neglect.’ - Karim Mussily, addressing the Grenfell Inquiry on 21 May.

A year after the fire at Grenfell Tower in west London killed 72 people, survivors and the bereaved continue to be failed by both the local council and the British state. Of 210 households made homeless by the fire, just 75 have been housed in permanent accommodation. Many are living in cramped emergency accommodation, including hostels and hotels. No criminal charges have been brought against any of those responsible for the fire: indeed, staff from Grenfell’s criminal and now disbanded landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), have been re-employed by Kensington and Chelsea’s housing department. The council itself – which oversaw the lethal recladding of the tower – has seen many of the same councillors re-elected in May, in an expression of callous indifference to working class lives by the wealthy voters of Kensington and Chelsea. Meanwhile, the police say their investigations will take more than a year. The public inquiry set up in August 2017 is only just beginning to hear evidence. It is a charade set up to shield the guilty and postpone any chance of justice for those whose lives were devastated by the fire last year.

Criminal charges now

One survivor recently described events at Grenfell as ‘an atrocity, not a tragedy’. Following the fire we wrote: ‘The fire at Grenfell Tower exposes the scale of corruption that permeates authority in Britain. It is driven by corporations scrambling for profits, bending rules and regulations and breaking them to do so. In these calculations, human beings are disposable and they must yield profits’ (FRFI 259 August/September 2017). The police are now investigating 460 companies in connection with the fire. A BBC investigation (Panorama, 20 May 2018) has revealed that the company that provided the insulation for the tower, Celotex, had added extra fire retardant to the sample of its product that was tested, to ensure it met safety standards. It also directly approached the Grenfell contractors, Rydon, to market its insulation, even though it knew it was going to be used with combustible cladding panels and that it released toxic cyanide smoke when burned. The majority of those who died at Grenfell are believed to have been killed by smoke. Robert Bond, the head of Rydon, said the two components – the combustible cladding and the toxic insulation – had never been tested together ‘because they were deemed to comply’ with safety regulations. The combination allowed the fire to roar through the building from the 2nd to the 23rd floor in just 15 minutes – the equivalent, according to one fire expert, of pouring four tankers of petrol over the tower. It had been signed off by the architect, local building controls, the local authority and the tenants’ management organisation. Meanwhile Rydon has not only been awarded further lucrative local authority contracts in Ealing and Barnet but, through its partner Pinnacle Housing, is about to take on the maintenance of homes in which survivors of Grenfell will be housed.

The Hackitt Report into building regulations and fire safety, commissioned by the government, described cost-cutting and dubious practices (such as the same company providing both building designs and inspectors of the work) as ‘a race to the bottom’. It found that the enforcement of building regulations had fallen 75% in the last decade. Yet the final report did not rule out the use of flammable cladding on tower blocks, nor the widespread use of ‘desk-top studies’ rather than inspections to assess safety. While recommending broad principles, it essentially leaves it up to the construction industry itself to determine how these will be applied. Under pressure from Grenfell residents, the Housing Minister James Brokenshire said the government will ‘consult’ on a combustible cladding ban and issue ‘reviewed’ building safety regulations in July.  It is unlikely to result in any real change. The review of fire safety regulations called for following the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in south London in which six people died was shelved for eight years by successive housing ministers. Indeed, one minister – Brandon Lewis – specifically rejected the recommendation for the retro-fitting of sprinklers to older tower blocks on grounds of cost. Fire experts say sprinklers would have prevented the mass loss of life that took place at Grenfell.

Public inquiry cover-up

Despite the belated move by the government – following a legal challenge and a petition criticising the lack of diversity on the inquiry panel – to allow two Grenfell ‘experts’ to sit alongside Judge Martin Moore-Bick, in reality the Grenfell Public Inquiry exists only to delay and obfuscate the fight for justice. For nine days from 21 May, the inquiry heard moving testimony from the friends and families of the 72 people who died. For many, ignored, corralled and treated with contempt by RBKC councillors at council meetings, it has been their first real chance to be heard. But the inquiry has no intention of letting these people, most of them working class and black, affect proceedings in any way. Moore-Bick has dismissed ‘questions of a social, economic and political nature which in my view are not suitable for a judge-led inquiry’ and there have been attempts to silence those who have raised them. Karim Mussily, the nephew of 57-year-old Hesham Rahman, who died on the 23rd floor, told the inquiry: ‘Until those in power listen and make changes to a system that fails, God only knows how many homes are safe in our country. We are here because…the system was allowed to kill Hesham and 71 others’. When warned by lawyers that he was ‘veering towards evidence that should be taken later in the inquiry’, he replied: ‘We have been censored enough’. Voices in the audience urged him to go on, and he was given a standing ovation at the end (Robert Booth, The Guardian 22 May 2018). The contempt for the working class residents of Grenfell and the surrounding North Kensington area that has been a hallmark of the ruling class response to the disaster continues. No lessons have been learned. As Eddie Daffarn, another resident who escaped from the 16th floor and who co-authors the Grenfell Action Group blog, told Channel 4: ‘If the council and if the TMO had treated us with a modicum of respect and humanity, Grenfell would have been avoided.’

The inquiry will not begin evidential hearings until 4 June – ten months after it was first set up – and is not expected to produce even a preliminary report until late autumn. It is expected to run for two years. As we said when the inquiry was announced, it is a process designed simply to demoralise, demobilise and exhaust Grenfell survivors and their supporters, while kicking any accountability into the long grass.

Justice still denied

Following the outburst of grief and rage from residents of Grenfell and the surrounding area, their supporters and friends in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the government and the local council acted swiftly to prevent any real movement for justice from emerging. When hundreds from the community took matters into their own hands, protesting and forcibly entering the Town Hall, the ruling class was terrified and was determined that nothing like that should happen again. They need not have worried. The next march to take place would be silent, marching away from the criminal council to mourn by the charred ruins of the tower, a pattern that has been repeated on the 14th of every month since. The Justice4Grenfell campaign, hastily assembled from the Socialist Workers Party, Labour Party supporters and ‘radical’ but respectable figures, attempted to impose itself as the only legitimate voice of opposition to the council. At the same time, many survivors and other residents such as Grenfell United chose a path of silence and dignity, aiming to shame the ruling class into standing by its promises. Angrier voices demanding justice, such as the community groups organising around the Wall of Truth, have found themselves side-lined and ignored. The consequence has been that the council in particular has been let off the hook, with only small numbers of protesters, including the RCG, regularly protesting outside its meetings.

But the anger is still there, simmering beneath the surface. It is vital that all those involved in campaigning for justice for those bereaved and dispossessed by the atrocity at Grenfell continue to hold the council, the state and all the organisations responsible to account.

Fred Carlton

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 264 June/July 2018

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